Paying for Reviews? Just Say No.

Don’t know about the latest indie kerfuffle? That’s because you’ve probably been spending your free time writing. Mazel tov. In case you haven’t looked up in a while, here’s what you may have missed:

A few weeks ago, in a New York Times article, a gentleman named Todd Rutherford and his now-defunct company were “outed” for selling thousands of fake, five-star reviews to authors hoping to get an edge on their e-book sales.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of Rutherford’s customers was a rather well-known indie scribe who published a rather well-referred-to book about how he became a well-known indie scribe, mainly by purchasing hundreds of fake reviews. Now, Indieland has exploded with blogination: pro, con, and indifferent. Aspersions are raining down on this well-known scribe, who shares a name (if that indeed is his real name) with a dead philosopher and says of his meteoric rise to million-dollar sales, “Reviews are the smallest piece of being successful. But it’s a lot easier to buy them than cultivating an audience.”

Excuse me. That noise you just heard was the sound of my head exploding.

Why, why, why, when we’re trying so hard to gain legitimacy in a market (thankfully) tipping in ever-greater favor toward indie publishing, would we want to give ourselves another black eye by taking the sleazy way out?

What? You’d buy a fake review in a heartbeat to get to the top, or at least the middle, of that heap? You, uh, already have some on your Amazon page? Allow me to disabuse you of your rationalizations myths:

• Indies need to “an edge” to get noticed. Here’s your edge: put out a good product. Then another, and another. Learn clever, ethical ways to get your name and your work out. You were creative enough to write a book; you’re probably creative enough to promote it. I don’t want to hear you crying about how “indies can’t get reviewed.” Sure, another kerfuffle a while back resulted in a handful of book bloggers closing their doors to indies. A. Handful. Plenty will still welcome you, if you earn their trust and show yourself to be a professional. Because you ARE, right?

• Giving a free book to a reviewer is the same as paying for a review. Oh, hardly. It guarantees nothing. Book reviewers and bloggers may give you (gasp) less than five stars. They may get bogged down in long TBR lists. Or they might just decide your book isn’t their cup of tea and be too busy or non-confrontational to tell you. Happens all the time. A book blogger I met in person requested my first novel over a year ago, and I never heard a peep out of her. Whatever. Yes, those proof copies add up, but it’s the cost of doing business. Nearly every manufacturer gives away samples. Doesn’t mean the public will fall at its feet. It’s just an opportunity. The thousands of freebies you give away on your promotion days? No guarantees there. The thousands of people may or may not read your book and may or may not give you whatever reviews they feel compelled to write. Even if they hate it. Even if they’ve only read the first paragraph.

• Everyone else is doing it, so why not? This dude claims that “dozens and dozens of authors [indie and trad] have paid for fake reviews.” Why shouldn’t you? Because it hurts all of us. And not all of us are doing it. Look, what’s done is done, and John Locke’s karma is his own. But I don’t want it to be mine.

• Everyone thinks we all do it anyway, so why not? You’ll know. Is that really how you want to do business? The way you want to build your career? How you want indies to be represented? I hope not.

• No one will ever know. Come now. You’re smarter than that. According to inside sources whose identities we’re protecting for their own safety, it doesn’t take much to do a little research, look for certain patterns in reviews, to find some that don’t “smell right.” If someone aims to take you down, you could be outed.

There. I’ve just kept you from blowing five hundred bucks on some sleaze artist out to prey on your insecurities and eager dreams. Toss that savings into the kitty toward editing and cover art for your next book. You’re welcome.

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

49 thoughts on “Paying for Reviews? Just Say No.”

  1. The sad part is the review buyer in question is, first and foremost, a businessman. He saw ebooks as a way to generate income for himself, and he did. Not like us poor sods who write because, well, for whatever reason.

  2. There was just another diatribe against indies in the Globe and Mail about this. Nowhere in the article does it mention that trad published writers also do this – and they do – because publishers no longer offer the kind of promo they used to.

    So I’ll say it, loud and clear – no, no, no, no and NO!!! Not now. Not ever.

    1. Wow, Yvonne. Seems like it never ends! Yes, the gentleman in the blog I linked to (and a belated thanks to Al for bringing it to my attention) writes that indie and trad authors are doing this. It taints whatever trust readers have in the customer review system.

      1. You’re welcome, Laurie.

        The latest twist on this is the open letter from several trad published authors calling to task one of their own who is accused of writing many positive reviews of his own books (using multiple accounts). As if that isn’t bad enough, he also wrote negative reviews of books he saw as his biggest competitors.

        1. This is terrible! I have never paid for a review and don’t intend to. I might have a piddly amount of reviews but at least they are real ones, and I’d rather have a few sincere readers (whether good or bad reviews) than a glowing stream of fake, paid ones!

  3. I’ve never paid for a review, and won’t. Hah, just look at my Amazon author page and that should say it- I have ONE book with 10 reviews, all others, 7 or less– most have NONE. But that doesn’t keep those titles from selling. I even have a 1 star review on BN, and that title is one of my best selling ones!

    Naw, why waste the money when eventually good products will speak for themselves?

    Great post!

  4. Problem here is the irreversable damage this is doing to the Indie movement. Book reviews have always been held to be a bit suspect and unreliable (I know one Indie book – quite the worst book I’ve ever read, sitting on Amazon with over 50 5-star reviews, a lot from other Indies). I think this sort of story just confirms suspicions that book reviews are an unreliable giude to the actual quality of the book.

    1. Spot on, Chris. Rutherford made a point in the NY Times article that he suspects ALL reviews. As if anything he says is worth a dime, but imagine (since he was the focus of the article) how that must have played in the minds of the readership. The only takeaway might have been, “Indie reviews are tainted.”

      1. On the other hand, I’m sure that suspecting all reviews isn’t healthy.
        I wouldn’t DREAM of buying a book because of a NYT review. I consider them all “tainted”, frankly.
        I choose books on a lot of factors, but what some jerk in New York or academia said about it is not one of them.
        I’m very opposed to the entire idea that there is some structure somewhere who knows more about what I read than I do.

        1. And I think that’s an attitude that’s good for indie writers. Amazon reviews are a game to play. You need ten to get on email lists. That’s it.
          I look at amazon listings and just assume the reviews are either paid for, from friends or logrollers, or from people whose tastes are different from mine. If I’m on the bubble after looking at the information provided, I might scan the reviews for a gist.
          I don’t see it as some castle of legitimacy. Otherwise, I might buy into the idea that industry “gatekeepers” should decide what’s available to be read.

  5. Good piece. I agree. It makes me annoyed. It’s also craaaaaaaaaaaazy.

    Getting good reviews takes work. First, there’s all the work you put into writing the book, getting it edited and promoting it. You have to contact a lot of people requesting an honest review in the hope they will like your book or you hope someone will buy your book and maybe even write a nice review. When that happens it’s just amazing. It shouldn’t be something that is just handed out on a plate. Oh, I’ll just get a burger and a takeaway review please… I’ll take the most expensive with the extra sugar and honey and ooh wicked review. Who will know if a five-star review is deserved or not if someone is paying for it? If I saw a review and it carried a ‘paid for’ stamp at the end, I wouldn’t believe a word of it.

    Whoever pays for a review needs their head tested and whoever is charging someone to write one is unethical. On the bigger plane, it damages the reputation of all indies. Sometimes I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND PEOPLE! Have they no ethics at all? Can’t they see the bigger picture?

  6. It really is sad. I believe that some of these authors don’t even see it as wrong or hurtful to the indie community as a whole. They just see it as a way to get their book seen quicker. Conversely, I believe there are those who couldn’t care less about the damage it can cause and just selfishly concentrate on the short-term success it can bring them.

    I wish there could be a disclaimer on these review sites, kind of like a surgeon general’s warning – Warning! May kill your credibility. May make all your future writing endeavors crash and burn. May force you into using a pen name. May damage the indie author movement. May bring hordes of legitimate indie authors to your door with pitchforks and torches (or at least receive a sternly-worded email). Buying fake reviews has been proven in clinical studies to make you a jerk(really tempted to use a much worse word, but you know, terms of use and whatnot).

  7. an excellent post which I completely agree with. Paying for a review will do you no good in the long term.

  8. I don’t know a lot about this subject insofar as published books are concerned. But in my writing and reading of fanfiction, I was very aware of reader’s comments … letters of comment they were called at one time, or locs. They were always welcome, but always voluntary on the part of the person commenting. And sometimes they were very helpful. And sometimes they were harsh and depressing and still helpful in that way, making the writer pay closer attention to a particular detail or technique, such as pov, or passive voice or flooding adjectives and adverbs.

    What I never heard of or experienced was a comment having much impact on other readers. Obviously authors paying for reviews is going to hurt all authors. Its cheating. So my ignorance is clear on this question: Do honest reviews actually help sales? Or do they mostly serve to keep the author on his or her toes? In either case are they worth seeking out? And is it usual practice to ask someone to review a book that’s not yet published? Just wondering.

  9. Interesting post. What a shame this sort of thing goes on. It never entered my head to consider purchasing a review! My 4 & 5* are earned fair a square, and I am proud to be able to say that.

  10. Excellent post about the latest way indie authors get exploited. Between bought and paid for reviews and the sock puppets that some writers use to review their own work, it’s a crazy and devious world.

  11. Great post.
    I have asked for reviews for other authors books from my friends who have read them.
    I have to say I found it amusing to see one indie author with maybe one hundred reviews on Amazon for a book that he/she gave away free. I know he/she is constantly asking for reviews from other authors. Am I naive to not annoy everyone who told me they loved my book to post a 5-star review? I just don’t work that way. I concentrated on writing the second book.
    John Locke says quite frankly in his book “How I …” that he believes in investing in his businesses, and that many people will disagree with how he does this. I think the point in this thread that he focused on writing primarily as a way to make money is correct, and he doesn’t apologize for that. There is a fine line to walk between developing a platform, promoting your product, and abusing the trust of readers who don’t know the review system on Amazon is broken.

  12. It is sad to see this happening. I don’t pay a lot of attention to 5 star reviews when buying books. I go look at well written 3 star reviews as I find those give me a better idea of whether I’ll like the book or not. I’ve also bought a few books based on 1 star reviews. This is not to knock 5 star reviews at all, I review books myself. It’s that I’ve found knowing why people did not like a book to be more helpful in deciding about a book I know nothing about and am not familiar with any of the reviewers. Many times it’s “not enough sex” or “pacing was slow” or “too complex” that has me going “”ohh this is a book for me”.

    Hate seeing so many author behaving badly things hitting one after another. Hopefully the press will run out of topics soon and we can get back to the business of writing and properly promoting books.

  13. One angle that occurs to me is that we’re all paying the price for a culture that commodifies everything. When I used to write music reviews, they introduced a star rating and within a month I was gone. For me, reviewing isn’t so much rating as getting to grips with whatever piece of art I have at my fingertips. Now, thanks to Amazon in particular, we’ve fallen into this trap of product reviews becoming consumer guides and only consumer guides, there to inform someone whether it’s worth the investment of their time and money. I know I’m being idealistic, but I wish we could remove all star ratings from everything and truly engage with the work on its own terms. Of course, that wouldn’t prevent cheating, but it would help reduce the perception some authors have that cheating might be necessary.

  14. Such an important issue and one that will haunt authors – I suspect mostly indie authors – for the next while. I’m at a loss as to what to say so I’ll just contribute a ditto to what Chris James has said and a ditto to what David Antrobus has said.

    Disappoints me, makes me mad, and makes me worry.

  15. Paying for a review is like sticking your face into a woodchipper. Sure, you’ll get an immediate rise in attention, but pretty soon you’re gonna look like an idiot for doing it.

  16. It’s sad that this has become and indie issue. Traditional publishers have been doing this for years. It doesn’t make it right, but it isn’t an indie issue.

  17. I agree with David. There are way too many people out there who think a thing is not worth doing unless you can get paid for it — and the quicker you can turn a profit, the better. Those of us who write because we care about the story and the writing and our reputations as authors are appalled by this kind of behavior; those who are in it to make a quick buck are going, “What?”

    Thanks, Laurie, for a great post.

  18. Great post, Laurie. I have never paid (nor could I afford to pay) for a review. I got lucky with ‘Joe Cafe’ and it has quite a few reviews. The fact that someone might suspect they are illegitimate is really troubling.

    This is an ugly issue. And I agree with David, the stars screw things up.

    1. It’s ugly. I don’t like the stars, but that’s what we have. I think we’ve educated our consumers, as David so eloquently put it above, to judge anything they pay for—art, music, books, toasters—on a relative scale. We are not making toasters. But the entities that sell books seem to want to go that way.

      As far as your reviews, JD, preparation meets luck. You wouldn’t have met that luck without a good product.

  19. I think the key here is not whether or not you pay for reviews, but whether those reviews are honest. All major publishers pay for reviews. They pay review services like NetGalley and they pay other services like Kirkus. Those services don’t do it for free. So, what is really needed is a way for Indie authors to get their book honestly reviewed, and yes, it will probably need to be a paid service and an Indie book probably needs more than a single review to be fair. My book got trashed by Kirkus, but got several 5-star reviews from book bloggers.

    A reputable service will not guarantee 5-star reviews, nor should they be expected to. I think the biggest problem for Indies is not knowing where to go to have their book reviewed at a fee by reputable services. It is foolish to say that you will never pay for a review. That is part of the business. Even if you only drop digital galleys at your local newspaper, you are in one sense paying for that review by giving them a book that would cost money.

  20. I respectfully disagree with you, Michelle. Not whether major publishers do this – I really don’t care how they conduct their business. I don’t believe the indie answer is a paid service. We have readers. We have reviewers and publications that cater to independently published authors. As for “paying for a review by giving away a book,” I refer you back to the point I made above. This does not obligate anyone to give me a glowing review or to even review me at all.

  21. It is bad enough that indie authors have to fight tooth and nail for any exposure they can get but for someone to come out and say that they pay for positive reviews is degrading to us all.

    I do ask for a review when I sell a book. If they like it tell their friends and families, if they don’t tell them anyway. We all have different taste. I have sold over 300 books at book signings etc. I have less than twenty reviews. I have given books away for reviews, some I’m still waiting on and have been for a long time.

    I cherish my four and five star reviews because someone took the time to write them and give their honest opinion. I am glad at least that they are spread out across different platforms and not just Amazon.

    Maybe if someone could come up with an independant rating system for indie authors like Kirkus it would give some concrete to what we love to do. Write.

  22. Great post! I may not have a ton of reviews, but I am proud of each one of them, good & bad. I feel that they are a true measure of my work, especially since those who took the time to write the review didn’t have to. I believe we all have room for improvement, traditional or inide published, and reviews are a great way to gage where those areas of improvement may be. Sadly, there will always be those who take the shortcuts.

  23. Another excuse to Indie bash… The traditional publishers have been paying for the manufacture of reviews since forever. I think David has it right, but how do you turn a speeding freight train around.

  24. I agree with you, Michelle; there is a big difference between paying someone for their time to do an honest review, which is a legitimate fee for service, versus this issue of paying for a rating (as opposed to review). Thanks, Laurie, for the post – I hadn’t been up to date on what had been happening. Depressing, though.

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